November 12, 2002

Florentine dynasty sends up masterworks to the Institute

The Medici, Michelangelo and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence

The Art Institute

November 9 - February 2, 2003

The Art Institute's The Medici, Michelangelo and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence is a fabulous collection of paintings, sculptures, and object pieces from this period. Five years in the making, this exhibition is a survey of the Medici patronage (arguably the most enlightened art benefactors ever) between 1534 and 1631. A central beneficiary of their patronage was Michelangelo, and this exhibition serves to both display some of his most famous pieces and to highlight his legacy. For those learned in art, it offers the opportunity to see, up close, works from the Renaissance typically only seen in textbooks (indeed, this is only the second time a major Michelangelo sculpture has traveled to America). For the rest of us, the exhibition is a user-friendly insight into some truly magnificent art. In short, this exhibition is a must-see.

The exhibition is divided chronologically into 11 rooms, beginning with the rise of the first Medici, Cosimo I, who at the age of 17 was hastily installed as the leader of Florence after the assassination of his uncle, Duke Alessandro de'Medici. A country boy, Cosimo quickly surprised his aristocratic handlers with his keen intellect, deft political instincts, and ruthless determination for power. He was passionate about the arts (especially the works of Michelangelo) and he understood the propaganda power of its imagery. He developed a cultural hub that not only created jobs but also instilled the city with a sense of pride. As the subject of many of these projects, he also successfully emboldened his own image—nearly every Florentine public place featured an intimidating portrait of the grand duke. Indeed, the court painters Jacpo da Pontormo and Agnolo Bronzino "fashioned a style characterized by courtly grace and opulence and often bristling with complex allegories relating to power and military might."

Demonstrating his political skills, in 1539 Cosimo decided to align himself to the Holy Roman Empire and marry into the family of Emperor Charles V. Bronzino's painting of Cosimo's wife—Eleonora of Toledo and Her Son Giovanni (after 1545), is one of this reviewer's personal favorites. The opulence and lavishness of detail in her dress is particularly beautiful. As the catalogue states, the focus of this portrait is not Eleonora herself but "…a relentless concentration on the essentials of the power image, of which an important element is her expensive attire."

The second room details the works of Michelangelo and explains his lasting influence on sculptors and painters throughout the late Renaissance and Baroque eras. Most notable is the Apollo/David sculpture, which represents one of Michelangelo's most important stylistic contributions—the serpentine figure. Called Mannerism, this style is characterized by a small head that surmounts a massive, muscular torso and tapering thighs, with the body dynamically twisted so that it can be viewed from many angles.

The third room displays the works of Michelangelo's contemporaries. Of particular note is Cellini's model of Perseus with the Head of Medusa, an imposing figure that Cosimo used as a warning to those who tried to oppose him. This room also details the first of the magnificent Florentine tapestries. Previously, Brussels was the epicenter of this industry but Cosimo, exhibiting his civic responsibility, wished to establish Florence as the new hub. He succeeded in wooing two Flemish weavers to come and establish a workshop, and, drawing on Florence's well-known textile industry as well as images drawn by Bronzino, these workshops produced many beautiful tapestries, including the Benjamin Received by Joseph piece exhibited in this room.

The fourth room has been recreated in the style of the Tribuna—the octagonal domed roomed that is part of the Uffizi (another Medici contribution). Two of the masterpieces in this room, Bronzino's Annunciation and Salviati's Christ Carrying the Cross, ordinarily resided in the original Tribuna. The other great works in this room include Bronzino's Laura Battiferri and the Holy Family (Panciatichi Madonna).

In addition to his commissions, Cosimo also set up one of the first art academies in Europe (The Accademia del Disegno). The artists attending this institute were trained foremost in terms of the Florentine disegno (line and contour), as opposed to color, with which Venetian and other northern Italian artists were more concerned. The fifth room displays some of the products of this institution (including another personal favorite of this reviewer, Bandinelli's Two Studies of the Head of a Youth).

The next rooms detail the changing of an era, first with the death of Michelangelo and then the succession of Cosimo's son, Francesco, to the Duchy. Francesco, introverted and melancholic, was the opposite of his father. He preferred the natural sciences to the arts, and this is seen in the recreation of his study, designed by Vasari, which held many of the more exotic collectibles from the time (sea shells, mineral samples, precious stones, and the like).

His brother, Ferdinando I, and then his son Cosimo II succeeded Francesco. The remaining rooms display many of the sculptures and pictures these three commissioned, including the first European imitation of Chinese porcelain (which was all the rage back then). The last picture worth noting is the magnificent Judith and Holofernes by Allori. This picture apparently tapped a vein within Florence—the Biblical story symbolized victory over foreign oppressors and extraordinary courage. The story goes that Judith tramps up to the invading Assyrian general Holofernes and offers herself to him. After they have gotten to "know" each other, Judith cuts off Holofernes' head with his own sword.

All in all, this is an awesome exhibition, the first ever of this magnitude to be seen in North America. Indeed, some of these pieces have never before been shown outside their respective galleries or collections. Worthy of note is that Tuesdays are free days at the Institute, thanks to the Medici-esque contribution of Ford Motor Company.

The exhibition opens on November 9.